An interesting book that gives Sir Albert Ellis's account of the Gilbertese people including Ocean Islanders, the Ellice Islanders, along with Nauru in times of peace and war. Sir Albert Ellis includes references to the Japanese occupation and surrender along with acts of bravery by the local people.


"Give us stout hearts to labour well,
And bravely build, and truly plan,
Where brown and white as brothers dwell,
A perfect Brotherhood of Man."

                                                 ---Mrs. M. C. Parker.

The Gilbert Islanders are so frequently referred to in these records, and they figure so largely in the Commission's industry that it seems appropriate to give some particulars about them. They number in all about some 27,000 and are well distributed through the group, even though the southern islands are in a drought area, making the living conditions there really strenuous at times. The need for activity and the struggle for existence has resulted in the development of a virile race, to a considerably greater degree than is the case with most South Sea islanders.

As one becomes well acquainted with them, their original "make up," and their fine traits of character are increasingly apparent. They differ in many ways from the inhabitants of other groups in the Pacific, and should form a very interesting source of study for the anthropologist as regards their origin, physical characteristics, language and habits.

The Gilbertese are Micronesians as distinguished from the more numerous brown Polynesians, and the black fuzzy haired inhabitants of the Western Pacific, the Melanesians.

The typical Gilbert Islander is a man of good stature, though not so tall and heavy boned as the Polynesian; he is brown skinned and straight haired, of fine and frequently handsome appearance with his erect carriage and independent bearing. He has a somewhat sensitive nature, but responds promptly to kindly treatment, is a quick judge of the individual white man with whom he comes in contact, and decides at once whether he likes or does not like him.

In many ways his point of view differs from ours, but at the same time there is invariably something in it. Some instances may be mentioned to illustrate this. In the early days at Ocean Island when nearly all the Gilbertese were quite inexperienced in the white man's ways, we organised sports on the first occasion of King's Birthday. The natives duly participated, but their reaction to some of the events was singular. For instance, they thought the race contests were inconsiderate and indeed impolite. A man who found that he could run faster than the others ought to slow down, so that they could all come in together, and not be put to shame by one man. That this should be done in the presence of their women folk made matters worse!

The tug of war events, when we put teams from the different islands against each other, were a definite failure. The women in particular became very excited as they urged on the teams from their islands, and did not like it at all when their men were on the losing side.

Naturally their attitude on many matters moderates as they become more closely associated with the white man, but certain characteristics are deep-rooted, and remain much the same.

At Ocean Island once, the manager met some natives going up to the Resident Commissioner's Office and sensed that they were intending to lodge a complaint. He asked what was the matter. It was the tinned meat, their daily ration, and they showed him some in a piece of paper with gristle and bits of skin in evidence. He tasted it, told them it was very nice and continued to help himself until there was very little left. Then he remarked that if it was good enough for him, surely it was for them! They were obviously upset, however, and continued on their way; but the nature of their complaint to the Resident Commissioner had changed. They had nothing to say about the meat, it was against the manager now, for he had "eaten their evidence." Quite the wrong thing to do! In other words they had been shamed, which was much worse than anything the matter with the meat.

Their dislike of being put to shame is most pronounced, and the manner in which they deal with the event which we usually designate as "Ask Papa" is an instance. As we know, the white aspirant for a daughter's hand frequently has a very unhappy time with an unsympathetic or even irate father. It is not so with the Gilbert Islander. The maiden's father knows perfectly well when the young fellow approaches his hut what he is coming for, and has his mind made up. If the would be suitor is invited to sit down on a clean mat, he knows at once that he is in favour, and the prompt ending of his suspense naturally affects the discussion. If, however, the father points to a dirty mat and tells him to sit there, then he knows immediately that he has no chance. They discuss casual matters in a disinterested manner, allude to the weather and fishing prospects, and the unsuccessful aspirant does not unduly prolong his visit, but his feelings have been spared.

Sometimes I made use of their sense of shame in early years when dealing with misdemeanours. When telling a native how he had gone wrong I would ask him if he didn't think the women would laugh at him when he went back to his island and they regard of his offence. He would invariably look uneasy, and reply "tao eng" (perhaps so) and it would have the desired effect as regards future behaviour.

It may be mentioned that they are intensely jealous for their women folk, and no one will blame them for that. The standard of morality in the Gilberts is, I consider, a high one.

In language matters too, the Gilbertese are somewhat unique, and there again the subject is one for the anthropologist. Two of their words impress me as being noteworthy. When a native is being questioned, perhaps at court, and the position is becoming involved, he pauses as if hesitating to play his last card and then ejaculates "Ngkam!" The meaning of this word as given in the standard Gilbertese dictionary is "I do not know, I am not supposed to know." Another authority on the language states that this one word conveys the sense contained in the phrase: "I have no concern in this matter: it is outside my affairs." "Ngkam" - truly a useful expression!

The other word is "te unimane" (literally "the old man"), but there is more in it than that. The dictionary definition is "the wise old man," and the natives apply it to the Resident Commissioner, whatever his years may be, or to us older folk. It implies age combined with respect. The members of the Kaubure, or Native Council, are collectively considered worthy of the term "te unimane." It is used as an implied compliment, not as a reflection on one's age. 

A pleasing feature about the Gilbertese is their loyalty to Britain and the Empire, though this is not confined to them by any means; the same may be said of all the Pacific Islanders. Some of their forces have fought with much bravery and distinction. The Gilbertese were not called upon to do this, though I am sure they would have eagerly responded. They were, however, asked to form a large labour corps, and in this capacity they rendered good service at several bases in the Gilberts and at Guadalcanal.

Following the battle of Tarawa the Corps was hurriedly collected, and rendered splendid service at clearing up the battlefield under dreadful conditions. They had to wear gum boots and gas masks, which implies something of what they had to contend with. Their duties were carried out in high spirits, and at the same time they were highly practical; any Japanese articles or money they came across were retained for selling to the Americans as souvenirs; they did good business! As part of their war effort, they donated funds for the purchase of two fast motor-boats, of a type which has rendered excellent service.

Nor is their loyalty confined to matters pertaining directly to the Empire. For 45 years they have been associat4ed with the phosphate industry and have always rendered good service. At both Nauru and Ocean Island they have suffered grievously at the hands of the Japanese. It would have been natural if they had said they never wanted to see these islands again; but the contrary is the case. They have already responded to the call for service in the industry, and I judge will engage as freely as ever. It is surely a testimony to the way they have been treated, both as a people and in the matter of employment.

Discussing Gilbertese affairs with the Resident Commissioner recently, I was much interested in hearing some of his plans for the welfare and development of the natives. Suitable remunerative employment stands high in the connection; he wants to see the Colony self-contained as far as possible. In matters of health, the native medical practitioners trained at Suva Hospital are proving very useful. Two more are just completing their training, others will be sent to take their places. The native nurses at Abaokoro, too, are very promising. It was good to see the usefulness of the women being recognised. Usually in the Gilberts they do not seem as capable as the men, and their money-earning efforts are mostly confined to the seclusion of their huts, where they make hats, mats, baskets, etc., from dressed pandanus leaf, at which work they are certainly very skilful.

Another innovation in which the Resident Commissioner is taking much interest is the appointment of two natives of District Officers. The matter is referred to in the Crown Colonist of August, 1945, thus:

"The appointment of two Native Administrative Officers in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands marks a milestone in the history of British native administration in the Pacific. The two new officers are Bauro Ratieta, a Gilbert Islander, and Penitala Teo, an Ellice Islander, and both have already taken up their new duties. The High Commissioner for the Western Pacific says that he has been impressed by the manner in which the new officers have entered upon their duties and responsibilities, and the favourable reception which the appointments have had."

The Resident commissioner kindly arranged for me to see both these officers. We had met before, as they had been employed by the Government at Ocean Island, and, in fact, were there during a portion of the Japanese occupation, afterwards being deported to Tarawa. Their reaction to the further particulars I gave them was very marked. Bauro's ideas of suitable punishment for the offenders as a nation was on particularly drastic lines. They would certainly never give trouble in the future! Both men are taking their duties very seriously, and it will be interesting to see how this development progresses.

The use of natives for running the wireless stations in the colony is now regular routine. There are about 12 of these, and the Resident Commissioner looks forward to the time when there will be one on each island, as radio communication is proving most useful, particularly in administrative matters. They carry not all the duties of the station, including running the power unit. On the Kiakia I was interest4d in seeing an Ellice Islander, Bubu by name, doing the flash-lamp signalling expertly. He is the wireless operator on the little vessel. In addition to these duties, they are shortly commencing to take meteorological observations for the use of aircraft.

Then there is the training of natives from both groups as launch engineers, coxswains and seamen for the local craft. At such work they are excellent, and more of them will be required in future.

The Colony Native Constabulary Force under a white officers is another useful employment. It numbers 75 at present, and may be increased, as Ocean Island is again coming into the picture. So far as the phosphate industry is concerned, the Resident Commissioner is very appreciative of the fact that the Commission can employ up to 1,200 young men from the two groups, and so the industrial future for the Gilbert and Ellice Islanders is assured.

While the young fellows are quite keen on going away to work and earning money to buy timber for canoe-building, fishing lines, sewing machines, etc., on their own islands the Gilbertese men can hardly be called industrious by even their greatest admirers. Here again their point of view differs from that of the white man, and to them it is extraordinary that we spend all or most of our years at work. Why should we do this, they ask, if we are not hungry? And they are adepts at starting their attitude in words that are difficult to answer.

Some years ago, one of the Catholic Fathers on Beru, burdened with a sense of the natives' indolence made up his mind to influence them by example, and at the same time to make use of their keen sense of shame. He would show them the virtues of industry.

Some distance behind the Gilbertese villages there is invariably a series of what are called babai pits. These are deep excavations, with water at the bottom and in them is grown a coarse species of taro, a nutritious native food. The tubers sometimes weigh 100 lbs. or more, but to cultivate them, much work has to be done by systematic "feeding," and once a week chopped up green stuff is packed round the roots. 

Of quite a different type to the Gilbertese they nevertheless associate with them very readily, and I have never known of a clash between the two peoples, which is rather remarkable as they are frequently thrown closely together.

Owing to the group being better situated than the southern Gilberts as regards rainfall, the living conditions have always been easier in the Ellice Islands. In each case the natives are singularly dependent on the produce of the coco-nut palm which grown to perfection in the coral sand and shingle formation. Many of the islands are atolls, containing lagoons of varying sizes, those in the Gilberts being much the larger, while the Ellice lagoons and their islets covered with a wider range of vegetation, are undoubtedly the more picturesque.

The Ellice Islanders do not number more than 4,000 all told, the two northern islands, Nanumea and Niutao being the most thickly pop0ulated. Probably the living conditions there are somewhat harder than at the others, and for that reason they represent the best labour recruiting field in the group, not only for the phosphate industry, but also as sailor men, recruits for the Colony constabulary and so forth. The young fellows are strong=lusty natives, and are certainly remarkable examples of what a simple diet of coco-nuts and fish, with a little coarse taro and an occasional turtle can do. At the same time they long for the fleshpots of Egypt in the form of the white man's "bullamacow" (beef.) At Ocean Island the time expired labour would sometimes take a live bullock back with them.

Owing to the reef-bound formation of their islands and the frequently heavy surf conditions, the Ellice natives are probably unique in the art of handling boats and canoes in times of danger. After long experience, if I had to go through heavy surf on a coral reef, often an ordeal, I would sooner do it in a whaleboat manned by Nanumea boys than by any other Pacific islanders, and probably would prefer to be in one of their canoes rather than the whaleboat. The canoes are lighter and quicker, thus being able to dart out when there is a brief lull in the oncoming breakers, while in the possible event of a capsize, the prospect of injury from the upturned boat is greater than from the canoe.

When en route for Ocean Island in August, 1900, to commence operations, accompanied by my brother, G. I. Ellois, and a white staff of about five men, we called at Nanumea and Niutao and engaged some 35 natives as labour. They constituted the force with which we started the work, assisted by a few Ocean Islanders. Later on in the same year the first hatch of Gilbertese was taken on, about 70. From then up to the outbreak of World War No. 2 we recruited regularly from both groups with the exception of a spell of two or three years when it was not convenient to go to the Ellice Group.

For boat work and aboard ship, the Ellice Islanders are at their best; shore jobs do not appeal to them so much; they like the stirring adventurous way of life, to make a lot of noise over their work, the more the better from their point of view, and incidentally from ours too, for it always promised well as regards the work which we heard the Ellice boys yelling; it means that shipping operations were going with a swing. I always considered , and still do, that as a labour force the Ellice Islanders are the complement of the Gilbertese; they react favourably to each other, and frequently produce a friendly rivalry which is a good line in th4ese isolated communities.

In the Constabulary also, the Ellice natives are an asset, in fact the Sergeant Majors are usually from their group. A mixed force of Gilbertese and Ellice Islanders is considered the best. The Resident Commissioner too hold retinue, as we found to our satisfaction and comfort during the recent visit to Tarawa.

An interesting development in the social life of the Gilbert and Ellice colony is to be seen in the displacement of the national dance of the Gilbertese, the Ruoia, by the Fatele of the Ellice Islanders, or Batere as the Gilbert native pronounces the word. Major Holland, who is a recognised authority on Gilbertese matters, considers the change has come about as one of the results of the B.P.C. employment of such large numbers of both islanders at Ocean Island, and I think he is correct.

Certain it is that for years in early times we would hear night after night from the labourers' quarters sonorous chanting with an occasional resounding clap in perfect unison, a typical feature of the Ruoia; this would to on hour after hour, they never seemed to tire of it. They must have enjoyed their Ruoia, but if no, it always impressed me with the view that they were taking their pleasure in a very solemn and almost unhappy way. One had the feeling that it must be high art in the master of dancing, but that there was too much of that aspect, "the tail wagging the dog" so to say.

R. L. Stevenson, who saw plenty of ruoia during his stay on Butaritari and Abemama in the early days as described in his fascinating book "In the South Seas," says that:

". . . the Gilbert Island dance leads on the mind; it thrills, rouses, subjugates; it has the essence of all art, an unexplored imminent significance. . . ."

If so, it is just too bad that the Ruoia is falling into disuse, for nowadays the dance is only performed by the older natives.

The Batere has effectually displaced the Ruoia so far as the younger folk are concerned, and in more recent times the Batere could be heard at Ocean Island every night except Sunday. I believe it has been adopted at Nauru also, and evidently has come to stay. It is performed with much vigour and evident enjoyment, some of the young fellows sitting round an empty box or table on which they drum with their hands in perfect time, and with such emphasis that "the drum" sometimes collapses under the strain. to this accompaniment served young fellows or perhaps women are lined u in front of the group, and go through a varying series of rhythmic movements, chanting meanwhile, but the general atmosphere is one of enjoyment. I have never seen any improper element appear at one of these dances.

While we were at Tarawa, the Gilbertese Labour Corps which has done such excellent work during the war, put on a Batere performance for the benefit of the New Zealand party and the crew of the plane by which we were to travel next day; it was an interesting occasion, even though th4 natives had very short notice of our visit. When we expressed our thanks to them at the close they wanted to hear something about the recent Nauru and Ocean Island happenings, a never failing source of interest.

On my return to the Gilbert and Ellice Colony after some years of absence owing mainly to the war, one of the impressions foremost in my mind is that the grouping of the two peoples, the Gilbertese and Ellice Islanders, the Micronesians and Polynesians, has proved by the test of time that the arrangement originally made for administrative convenience was a very wise one. Those who were responsible for it in the first place probably "builded better than they knew." It is doubtful if the Empire has any more orderly and well behaved Crown Colony than this widely scattered one in the Central Pacific, of which every island is not more than 15 feet above high water mark, with the single exception of Ocean Island.


"Never was isle so little,
Never was sea so lone;
But over the scud and the palm trees
An English flag was flown."



Jane's Kiribati Home Page

click here

Jane's Polynesia Home Page

click here

Jane's Micronesia Home Page

click here

Jane's Melanesia Home Page

click here

Jane's Oceania Home Page
Pacific Islands Radio Stations
Jane Resture's Oceania Page
Jane's Oceania Travel Page
(E-mail: -- Rev. 4th April 2012) 
eXTReMe Tracker